Excuse all those excuses

The Maple Leafs' new starting netminder, Andrew Raycroft, stretches his leg during a dryland...

The Maple Leafs' new starting netminder, Andrew Raycroft, stretches his leg during a dryland workout yesterday in Strathroy. Raycroft hopes to rebound from an off-year in Boston. (London Free Press/Craig Glover)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

STRATHROY -- For all you conspiracy theorists out there, let's get one thing straight.

Goalie Andrew Raycroft is not allergic to pucks.

So, if you figured that was the reason he struggled so much in his sophomore season with the Boston Bruins last year, forget it.

A foolish theory? Of course. But it's not the first ridiculous idea that has reached the ears of the Belleville native this summer.

"I've pretty much heard every theory under the sun," Raycroft said. "In fact, I've lost count of how many times since last December I've been asked by people: 'What went wrong?' "

Standing in the hallway of the Gemini Sports Complex here in this southwestern Ontario community, the Maple Leafs' new starting netminder can only shake his head in disbelief at some of the wild explanations lobbed his way.

The one that makes him chuckle the most?

"It's the one about the smaller goalie equipment they introduced a year ago," he said, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, right. That's got to be it. Come on. Do people actually think I wasn't winning games because I had an extra inch lopped off my pads? Maybe that might account for one additional loss, but not five or six.

"I've heard it all. The new rules. The smaller equipment. The fact we were coming off a lockout. It could have been that, too.

"But none of that matters. The fact is, I've got to change that."

In an effort to get back on track, Raycroft has come here to the goaltending school of local-boy-done-good Steve McKichan, who moonlights during the season as the Leafs' netminders coach.

On any given evening this past week, you would have found Raycroft and highly regarded Leafs prospect Justin Pogge being peppered with shots from the stick of Anaheim Ducks forward Andy McDonald, yet another Strathroy product. All the while, a small video camera sits on a tripod in the high slot, recording every goal, every save, every movement.

"They are both outstanding," McDonald said of Raycroft and Pogge. "I've gotten a first-hand taste of that the past few nights. I can't speak for the Leafs organization, but they appear to be a good tandem for the future."

Pogge, who wowed the nation at the world junior championship last winter, is pencilled in to be between the pipes for the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies this season. It will, he says, be a great learning experience "to play against men regularly for the first time, something you don't do in junior."

As for Raycroft, his future is now.

His resume is an impressive one. Named the top goaltender in the Canadian Hockey League in 2000, he went on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year four years later.

But the 2005-06 season proved to be a nightmare. An injury-plagued campaign saw him go just 8-19-2 in 30 games for the Bruins, causing him to fall behind Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivinen on the depth chart.

Looking at his track record, the Leafs felt Raycroft was a good goaltender whose career endured a temporary hiccup last year. With McKichan strongly recommending him to management, general manager John Ferguson pulled the trigger on a draft day deal in June that brought Raycroft to Toronto for goaltending prospect Tuuka Rask.

"I've been very impressed by him," McKichan said. "He is very willing to work and, after all the pre-scouting I did on him, I'm fully convinced he can return to form."

Both Raycroft and Pogge are here on their own. Their presence is in no way associated with the Leafs.

They are just two more goalies -- albeit high-profile ones -- attending this hockey school and, as such, have spent the week residing, along with 20 youngsters who are attending the camp, at the home of McKichan and his wife, Tracey.

At any given time you can find Pogge downstairs playing video games against one of the boys.

"There is a relaxed atmosphere here," Raycroft, 26, said. " It's been a lot of fun."

With training camp three weeks away, Raycroft welcomes the challenge of the Toronto fishbowl.

"Playing in Toronto, there is always the risk you'll fall on your face and everyone in Canada will know about it," he said. "In Phoenix, you could fall on your face and no one would know. But the upside is tremendous. Win a few games here, they love you. It's exciting to have the opportunity to have that type of impact.

"You look at the guys who have done well here -- not even won Cups, but done well -- they're always going to get a free meal at a restaurant. It's a tremendous opportunity for me."


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